Why Do Schools Still Teach an Oversimplified Thanksgiving Story?

By Liz Dwyer

My acting debut came in an elementary school play that reenacted scenes from the first Thanksgiving. I was assigned to play a Native American, complete with a construction paper feather headband. The story we told on stage is the one that millions of Americans are celebrating today—the Wampanoag people and the Pilgrims sitting down together in unity, giving thanks for a bountiful harvest.

It wasn’t until after college, when I picked up Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, that I learned that no one ate cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie on the first Thanksgiving, and that the holiday is steeped in brutality and betrayal. Such conversations could serve as a useful teaching moment and opportunity for discussion for millions of students every year, but the vast majority of schools persist in teaching a simplistic version of Thanksgiving’s history.

“If you don’t go along with the traditional story, you’re seen as a naysayer who’s spoiling the fun,” says Deborah Menkart, executive director of Teaching for Change. The nonprofit organization (together with Rethinking Schools) runs the Zinn Education Project, an effort to encourage teaching populist history in middle- and high-school classrooms across the country. Menkart says one of the reasons organizers created the project is to “ensure that resources that tell a more accurate perspective of history are easily available to classroom teachers.”